As Jasmine Tolbert received updates on Wednesday, she happily relayed the incoming numbers to her mom in texts.
Tolbert, the president of the NAACP Vancouver branch, was getting updates on a COVID-19 vaccination clinic at PeaceHealth Southwest Urgent Care in Vancouver.
The vaccine clinic took place this week and focused on inoculating Black, Latino/Hispanic and Pacific Islander community members who fall into Washington’s current eligibility for vaccination.
Tolbert saw vaccination numbers climbing on Tuesday and settling on 197 Black community members vaccinated through the clinic by the end of Wednesday.
“I think I just saved this many lives, mom,” Tolbert recalled texting her mother about the clinic.
Another 230 Latino/Hispanic community members were vaccinated on Thursday, and about 150 Pacific Islander elders were vaccinated Friday.
The event was organized by PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, Clark County Public Health, NAACP Vancouver, the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington, Southwest Washington League of United Latin American Citizens Council 47013 and Odyssey World International Education Services.
The idea was to intentionally vaccinate some of Clark County’s most at-risk populations for COVID-19, said Joseph Seia, executive director for the Pacific Islander Community Association of Washington.
“A lot of people are coming out to get vaccinated, and a large part of it is because people have lost a lot of friends,” Seia said.
Despite the fact that Black, Latino and Pacific Islander people are more likely to be infected with COVID-19, and more likely to die from COVID-19, those populations make up a miniscule percentage of those who’ve received COVID-19 vaccine in Washington and the U.S.
Across the country, Black people have died from COVID-19 at 1.4 times the rate of white people, according to the COVID Tracking Project. Latino and Hispanic people have died at 1.3 times the rate of white people, and Pacific Islander people have died at 1.1 times the rate of white people.
In Clark County, the rates of infection for these three populations surpasses the 1,576.3 per 100,000 population rate of infection for white people. Black people have a 1,912.3 per 100,000 population rate of infection. Hispanic and Latino people have a 5,137.8 per 100,000 population rate of infection. And Pacific Islanders have a 6,489.0 per 100,000 population rate of infection.
Yet, according to state Department of Health data, Washington has only given vaccine to 1 percent of Black Washingtonians age 65 and older, 3 percent of Hispanic/Latino Washingtonians and less than 1 percent of Pacific Islanders.
Framed another way, Washington has given one dose of vaccine to more than 414,000 eligible white people, but has only given one dose of vaccine to 26,135 Black, Latino/Hispanic and Pacific Islander people combined.
Seia said systemic racism has created barriers to health care and longer lives for communities of color.
These barriers have played a major role in the disproportionate COVID-19 toll on communities of color as well as the abysmal vaccination rates.
Seia said there are barriers to good preventative health care for communities of color, which often leads people to only seek care once a health complication is an emergency. Those barriers can include the country’s reliance on expensive health insurance to get good health care.
With COVID-19, in particular, communities of color are also more at risk for infection as many people of color work essential jobs and rely on public transportation.
Language barriers also play a role in the lagging vaccination rates, Seia said.
“This is a life-and-death situation for Pacific peoples,” Seia said. “If we didn’t have this opportunity, we wouldn’t know how we would have gotten our elders vaccinated.”
An inequitable distribution
Making matters worse in Washington, and Clark County, was the reliance on mass vaccination sites, which required reliable internet access to book appointments and car access to make appointments.
While Clark County struggled to get fair and proportional vaccine allocation from the state, its mass vaccination site, run by the state, gobbled up most of the county’s vaccine doses for the first 11 weeks of the rollout.
Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of Southwest Washington’s LULAC branch, said the state shorting Clark County on vaccine allocation furthered racial and ethnic disparities that already existed.
“Before our event, there was less than 1 percent of the Latino community vaccinated, across the state. That’s a really big issue,” Hamilton Rosales said. “The walls that have prevented access have been multiple. This is the first time we’ve had access to any of the vaccine. It’s absolutely unacceptable from a human standpoint.”
Some changes coming
Hamilton Rosales and Dr. Raymond Lee, an emergency medicine physician and chief of staff at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, mentioned that vaccine hesitancy can play a role in the lower vaccination rates for communities of color.
PeaceHealth Southwest is working with local organizations to get good information to communities of color. Lee recently presented at a Vancouver NAACP meeting and explained the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, while also discussing America’s history of medical mistreatment of Black people.
“I want folks to be as informed as they can be and I want people to feel empowered that they can make the right decision,” Lee said.
Even if vaccine hesitancy is addressed, communities of color still lack access and opportunity for vaccination. Clark County is attempting to make vaccination more equitable, and on Friday opened the county’s second mass vaccination site at Tower Mall in central Vancouver, which is closer to public transportation and communities of color.
The site will emphasize inoculating people of color and those most at risk for coronavirus, according to Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick. That site will set aside some vaccine each week to be specifically administered for at-risk demographics.
“These populations have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and they have traditionally had less access to health care and things like vaccinations,” Melnick said.
Public Health is also focused on creating mobile vaccine pods to visit congregate settings such food processing plants, which are often heavily staffed by people of color. The pods in the future could also visit school districts to vaccinate staff, and possibly residents who live near the schools.
“Even when the vaccine is available at pharmacies around the country, there’s still going to be populations that are hard to reach and we have an obligation to reach them,” Melnick said.